Sunday, January 25, 2009

A True Story From Hell on Earth - Book Review

Emergency Sex and other Desperate Measures
by Cain, Postlewait and Thomson
published by Miramax in 2004

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures (subtitled: A True Story From Hell on Earth) is not a long book, by my standards, but I didn't know if I could finish it. I couldn't put it down, and I couldn't keep on reading. I couldn't pick it up, and I couldn't stop until the end. It took me a week to finish it, but now I think I will never be finished with it.

What do you get if you take a doctor, a lawyer and recently divorced secretary and put them together in the middle of worst atrocities of the late twentieth century? No, that is not the start of a joke, it is how Emergency Sex came to be written by three of the most idealistic, courageous, tenacious, compassionate and brutally honest people I have ever encountered.

Not that they trumpet their virtues, indeed, the opposite. Ironically, in revealing what they perceive as their failings and faults, they reveal more than they know, and only their iron standards keep them from seeing what any reader can perceive - ordinary people in extraordinary situations doing the work of saints and angels while reviling themselves for not achieving better results.

They all worked for the United Nations, and between them, jointly or individually, worked in every hell that the '90's had to offer: Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia - if there was a place on earth where man's cruelty and inhumanity bloomed, the United Nations sent them there, to heal, to guard, to document the atrocities. In the process, they lose friends and companions in the violence, they lose their naivete, they lose their youth, and occasionally come close to losing their minds. But what civilized person could endure what they experienced and remain the same as before? I could not even read about it and remain the same.

Do not read this book if you want to be entertained and not think too deeply about our world today. Do not read this book if you want to keep the opinions you already have formed on the United Nations and the work they do.

The authors shed light on the proximate reasons for Srebrenica and other horror stories, but they leave it to the reader to form their own conclusions about what should have, could have been done instead. Like the stories they tell, my conclusions are layered and nuanced, but one thing I believe - we could not afford isolationism in the time of Wood Wilson, and we cannot afford it now.

We all live together on a small blue marble isolated in the vastness of empty space, and what affects one country affects all of us eventually, whether it is pollution and global warming or poisoning the air and water with ruthless manufacturing, or an arms race that spreads volatile weapons and death throughout the planet.

I like books with happy endings, and the lives of Andrew, Ken and Heidi prove that hope overcomes fear, compassion overcomes hate and truth is more powerful than lies. In this book, that will have to be a happy enough ending for me.

No comments: